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Los Angeles Times Interview : Julius Shulman : Capturing the Essence of California Architecture

October 09, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Julius Shulman at the photographer's home in the Hollywood Hills

In 1960, Julius Shulman took a photograph that, perhaps more than any other single image, conveys the style, grace and allure of postwar Los Angeles. Inside a steel-topped glass box balanced lightly on a hilltop, two young women in white cotton chat, while the City of Angels sparkles below. It is a picture both nostalgic and modern, the work of a self-taught photographer who truly invented himself.

In 1936, Shulman used a vest-pocket Kodak to snap a shot of a Hollywood home designed by architect Richard Neutra. A brash 26-year-old, he showed the picture to Neutra, and a career was born. Neutra hired him to photograph some of his other projects, and introduced the young photographer to such other leading West Coast architects as R.M. Schindler, Raphael Soriano and Gregory Ain. Shulman's dramatic prints played an important role in establishing an international reputation for these and other Southern California architects, especially during the '50s, a period many consider the golden age of Modernism. More than any architect of that era, he created a public image of the California style of design.

Perhaps because he never had formal training, Shulman worked intuitively, eschewing light meters and fancy light-reflecting umbrellas, and relying on nature. Yet, he was a master manipulator, often working at twilight, creating long exposures, opening and closing the lens, while turning lights on and off, to create texture and contrast. His clients often expressed surprise when seeing his images, for Shulman created a vision even they, as the creating architects, had never seen.

Shulman, who turns 84 tomorrow, lives with his wife, Olga, in a steel-frame house designed, in 1949, for them by Soriano. Long walls of glass contrast with corrugated sheet-steel siding. The house is hidden within two heavily wooded acres in the Hollywood Hills.

In 1986, Shulman announced his retirement, in part as a way of expressing his distaste for post-modernist design. But the lure of the lens was too strong, and now, back at work, he's busier than ever. A retrospective of his early photographs is currently on view at the Craig Krull gallery in Santa Monica, and a biography, "A Constructed View: The Architectural Photographs of Julius Shulman," by Joseph Rosa, has been published by Rizzoli. Inside his studio-office, Shulman shows off prints and publications, bouncing around the room with the energy of a teen-ager, promising not to retire until he hits 120.

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Question: What were the elements that came together to make the 1950s so robust in terms of architecture in the Los Angeles area?

Answer: I'd say, first, the economy. The '50s were glorious years . . . . The population was booming--people were coming to Los Angeles from all over the world. And architects were given free rein. They were allowed to experiment, not in the way that is being done today--these horrible monstrosities being made in the name of post-modernism--but with integrity. The architects of this period, people like Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Gregory Ain--they respected the client. Every line they drew was drawn with the client in mind.

Those were the great years and the result was that, throughout the world, there was a recognition of these architects' work. I was lucky to be doing the right thing at the right place at the right time. So anytime, anybody wanted a photograph of a modern house, Uncle Julius provided the picture.

Q: Can you describe the essence of the design philosophy of these '50s Californian architects?

A: I have to backtrack a little to answer that. In the 1930s, it was the heyday of what we call the International style. Architects like Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano--these men were following a very austere, Bauhaus kind of practice. The result was that many architects who followed people like Neutra began to edit that style of architecture, by doing things like literally raising the roof. They said, "We don't have to have just a box, let's add a little character to the design."

And that was one of the things that happened during the '50s, and right up to the '60s. Soriano, for example, who did my house, used an all-steel framework. During the earthquake--it was a shattering, powerful quake--we had not a crack. I am indebted to Soriano for his discipline in using those steel frames. The earthquake has proven this type of architecture is completely successful.

Yet, Soriano didn't have a client for 25 years. The public didn't recognize his work; they didn't buy it. But other architects modified the austerity, began to create more space with higher ceilings, sloping roof lines, and created some character.

Q:\o7 So would you say that, in the 1950s, California architects held on to the framework of the Bauhaus, and humanized it?

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